Braising means cooking in the oven, half submerged in fluid, and it's one of the most powerful and underappreciated cooking techniques there is. The process requires only basic implements and can transform meat from tough enough to stop bullets to a soft puddle of flavor.
Acquiring braising skills could change your shopping habits. No longer will you feel compelled to pay big bucks for tender slices of fancy steak. Instead, you'll find yourself leering at chuck steak and other cheap cuts, braising them with your eyes.
The very best cuts for braising are difficult to find over the counter, because most meat cutters grind those parts into hamburger: the great cop-out of American meat cookery. But the burger-bound scraps, crisscrossed with connective tissue, have more flavor than a soft steak from the same animal, provided you know how to coax it out. Any butcher, including the guy at your local market, can set aside some of the better braising cuts for you, like shoulder, neck, and cheeks.
Osso bucco, the famous bone-in braised roast, uses the shank muscles, analogous to your forearm or calf. Shanks are the toughest muscles in the body, layered with Kevlar-like sheets of intramuscular membrane. As osso bucco cooks, the membranes tighten and bunch the muscles into a lumpy ball at one end of the bone. When the membranes finally cook, they melt like fat.
Melted tendon, cartilage, and other connective tissues add texture as well as flavor to the meat, telling a story about the animal. A tender steak will never have this much character.
Cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens are ideal for braising, because they have heavy lids that allow pressure to build in the pan.
Many braising recipes call for searing the meat prior to braising, to seal in the juices. But given that the meat will spend hours submerged in pressurized hot liquid, I'm not worried about moisture loss. As long as the braising liquid stays more than halfway up the meat, it will be plenty moist.
While searing is pointless, browning is non-negotiable. Braising meat without browning it would be like brewing coffee without roasting it first. Indeed, the essence of a good braise is a simultaneously browned exterior and creamy innards.
Browning meat owes its charms to the Maillard reaction, a chemical combination of amino acids and sugars at high temperatures that produces hundreds of aromatic compounds that deserve much of the credit for making meat taste good.
Following the lead of James Beard, who was hardly one to shy away from added fats, I shun the commonly used greasy pan for browning and go oil-free under the broiler instead.
The broiler method gives you superior control over the exact shade of brown you want, with less splatter and decreased fire danger. Broil the meat about four inches from the heat, turning often for even browning. I go for crispy and golden but not crunchy and burnt. If burning does happen, your best bet is to slice off the burned part and move on.
Add your braising liquid to a pan full of browned meat. I highly recommend equal parts wine and coffee, but the liquid could also be stock, plain wine, dark beer, or just water. I like to add a few bay leaves and some garlic powder, but hold off on salt and other seasonings until later — like the next day when I'm making stew or shepherd's pie or refrying cut pieces of braised meat for tacos.
Cook at 300, turning the meat periodically. Whenever the fluid level drops to about half-full, replenish with water (or more wine and coffee) until the meat is nearly covered again.
Braise until the meat falls apart in total surrender to the slightest provocation, roughly two to five hours, depending on the cut of meat and how tight your lid fits.
Let the braise cool to room temperature and put it in the fridge overnight. In the morning the liquid will be solid gelatin, a poor man's demi-glace, and will melt like butter in a hot pan.
You could have boiled the same piece of meat instead of braising it, but it would have turned out stringy and slimy — and only after hours of boiling. Browning and then boiling the meat would be acceptable but won't be nearly the animal that browned and braised meat is.
With a pan of braised meat in the fridge, you have many options at your disposal. I like to make tacos, starting with a stack of corn tortillas in the oven while chopped bacon cooks in a pan. When the bacon starts to brown, add minced garlic and pieces of pulled-apart braised meat. Stir it all together and add some of the gelatinized braising liquid, which will melt into the mix. Season with chile, salt, and pepper, and eat it on tortillas with chopped onion, cilantro, and the creamy stuff of your choice.
And serve with red wine or coffee, depending on the time of day.